After Peak Oil, Are We Heading Towards Social Collapse?

Recently, Glen Sweetnam, director of the International, Economic and Greenhouse Gas division of the Energy Information Administration at the DoE, announced that worldwide oil availability had reached a “plateau”. However, his statement was not made known through a major U.S. mainstream media outlet.  Instead, it was covered in France’s “Le Monde” as follows: article in Le Monde.

One could assume that the U.S. assessment of the oil decline was exposed through this particular publication perhaps due to some arrangement that Barack Obama made with Nicolas Sarkozy. (Maybe it is an indirect way to alert the French while keeping most Americans still in the dark on the topic so that the later bunch can ignorantly carry onward as usual. After all, no unsettling prognosis should disturb their slow return into shopoholic ways that keep the economy, particularly China’s on which the U.S. federal government depends for loans, going strong.)
All considered, there was not, as far as I know, even a ten second blurb about Glen Sweetnam’s message issued via newscasts in New England where I live. At the time of his declaration, their reports primarily covered ad nauseam the recent flood again … and again.

In a similar vein, no reporter discussing the deluge dared to raise the point that worsening extreme weather is on the way with climate change consequences in the mix, along with oil’s relationship to these outcomes. Moreover, imagine the effect on the Dow or NASDAQ if Glen Sweetnam’s estimation and a discussion of connected economic ramifications got splashed all across the U.S.A.

What exactly are the implications? n Life After GrowthRichard Heinberg, Senior Fellow-in-Residence at Post Carbon Institute, states, “In effect, we have to create a desirable ‘new normal’ that fits the constraints imposed by depleting natural resources. Maintaining the ‘old normal’ is not an option; if we do not find new goals for ourselves and plan our transition from a growth-based economy to a healthy equilibrium economy, we will by default create a much less desirable ‘new normal’ whose emergence we are already beginning to see in the forms of persistent high unemployment, a widening gap between rich and poor, and ever more frequent and worsening financial and environmental crises—all of which translate to profound distress for individuals, families, and communities.”

In other words, we collectively have to stop our delusions about perpetual economic growth and find another way to live from this point forward. We need to stop pretending that all is well because our myopic view of life shows no oil or other major shortfalls in the very near future. If we do not face up to the truth, the repercussions are clear.
Instead of  an “ignorance is bliss” outlook, it’s markedly better to have long range vision and see the coming monster so that meaningful preparations can be made. Scrutiny of the landscape behind and ahead followed by timely adaptation is required. A suitable response is preferable to someone or some group blindly sticking to the same old patterns that could have worked well in the past, but are no longer functionally viable. (Shortsighted government leaders trying to wring the last drops of oil out of the Earth to continue globalized commercial goals certainly provide a clear case in point.)

Certainly, reality does not conform to fanciful hopes and dreams regardless of the degree that they are compelling due to familiarity or any other reasons. A willful adherence to past choices and whimsies just won’t help under the circumstances. As John Adams suggested, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

At the same time, our current standard of living clearly is provided by our ability to burn through unimaginable amounts of fossil fuels, including an estimated 30 billion barrels of oil a year whilst roughly 40 percent of global energy consumption stems from petroleum. Conversely, people without access to such rich energy sources, whether in developed or developing nations, rightfully equate prosperity and access to material goods with fossil fuel use.

After all, no “green” substitute can even come close to the energy density obtained by their derivatives. As such, Robert Bryce, managing editor of “Energy Tribune” and author of the newly released Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy, and the Real Fuels of the Future, points out in Let’s Get Real About Renewable Energy at online WSJ: “We can double the output of solar and wind, and double it again. We’ll still depend on hydrocarbons.”

In his view, the reason is that we can never, in a reasonable amount of time, reach the colossal scale needed to supply sufficient energy by alternative means. Likewise, “[renewables] cannot provide the baseload power, i.e., the amount of electricity required to meet minimum demand, that Americans want.”

At the same time, access to fossil fuels will increasingly be a major driver of small and large conflicts around the world with the biggest contenders –  most notably the U.S.A., China and Russia — using ever more forceful means to gain advantage over rivals. As such, the current Middle East and African wars are diminutive in scale compared to the contention that lies ahead.

In addition, the pending oil shortfall will cause products, services and food that rely on oil to skyrocket in cost.

Moreover, petroleum derivatives serve as the foundation for fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, transportation of goods to markets, the majority of the grocery packaging operations (i.e., the manufacture of containers in addition to the bottling and canning processes, etc.) and, of course, operational farm machinery.

All considered, imagine just farms alone being run without sufficient oil. Would they be capable to supply enough food for close to seven billion people without it? How will they provide for the nine to ten billion expected to be on the Earth in approximately forty years?

Henry Kissinger stated, “Who controls the food supply controls the people; who controls the energy can control whole continents; who controls money can control the world.” However, he perhaps neglected to consider that our food, practically all industry and finance are deeply tied to energy and that, in turn, is tied to fossil fuels.

According to a Greenpeace USA report released last month, “‘Nearly 71 percent of U.S. electricity comes from fossil fuels, including 53 percent from coal. Of the remainder, 21 percent is generated from nuclear power, 15 percent from natural gas, 7 percent from hydro, and less than 2 percent from other renewable sources.’ As a result of this energy mix, the U.S. emits more than 2,500 million metric tons of C02 (MMtC02) every year.”

In addition, coal and gases, that can be converted into power supplies, are not endlessly abundant. So in light of our energy dilemma, what can be expected in times ahead?

According to Thomas Wheeler in It’s the End of the World as We Know It , “The consensus is the suburbs will surely not survive the end of cheap oil and natural gas. In other words, the massive downscaling of America – voluntary or involuntary – will be the trend of the future. We are in for some profound changes in the 21st century. The imminent collapse of industrial civilization means we’ll have to organize human communities in a much different fashion from the completely unsustainable, highly-centralized, earth-destroying, globalized system we have now. There will need to be a move to much smaller, human-scale, localized and decentralized systems that can sustain themselves within their own landbase. Industrial civilization and suburban living relies on cheap sources of energy to continue to grow and expand. That era is coming to an end. One of the most important tasks right now is to prepare for a very different way of life.”

Nonetheless, Barack Obama and his cohorts have recklessly decided to try to extend our period of dependence on oil for “business as usual” instead of using a significant portion of it, along with a lavish amount of federal funds, to establish a firm foundation for alternative energy provision and the massive, societal changes that are on the way. In other words, they are still trapped in an all-out effort to support globalized industry (including its offshored job market and gargantuan transportation network) instead of their preparing the public for post-peak oil lifestyles in which human welfare and regionalized community development are emphasized.

Assuredly, facilitation of such a constructive switch would help America across the board. The reason is that the redirection of wealth away from horrific resource wars, macro-scale business and pernicious corporate bailouts towards the creation of robust decentralized economic bases would yield many benefits. The action could generate jobs, serve to protect the raw materials and the natural environments on which communities rely and curb fossil fuel use since many products would be created and used locally. It could, also, lead individuals and groups into gaining the necessary skills and understandings to create assorted merchandise, foster developments of co-ops and other innovative organizations like Simple Gifts Farm, as well as strengthen the U.S. economy at the grassroots level.

Moreover, their backing of transnational corporate agendas is plainly ruinous for environmental well-being and multitudinous societies across the globe. It, also, ensures that the most affluent class continues to make staggering financial gains at the expense of others. As such, many people face increasing deteriorating circumstances while, in tandem, their surrounding natural world falls apart due to resource plunder and environmental disasters.

As Bruce Sterling indicates, “No civilization can survive the physical destruction of its resource base.” Indeed, closed resource and energy systems have built-in limits to growth regardless of whether there are increases in population, resource consumption or energy demands.

The results of exceeding the constraints are undeniably clear. They include armed invasions and resource grabs from populations least capable to defend their assets and lands from aggressors, dwindling supplies of critical commodities as thresholds are reached and, ultimately, diminished economic gains, anyway.

All the same, any government employee who advocates for a cutback in energy use or globalized trade would be committing political suicide. He would, also, face a hostile public, including industrialists and farm owners, along with his being shunned by lobbyists and reelection campaign contributors alike.

Simultaneously, it is apparent that ‘revolving door‘ politics between corporate executives, politicians and bureaucrats with whom global-scale moguls sometimes collude do, in fact, exist and even lead, in some instances to regulatory capture. The overall outcome from such a pattern is unchecked corporate exploitation, deceit and power mongering during which time nations’ general populations become progressively destitute. Meanwhile, the über-class, without meaningful regulatory brakes on free market enterprise, obtain ever greater control over worldwide resources and the financial wherewithal to seize even more control over time.

Likewise, the overall arrangement leads to multinational business owners seeking ever cheaper labor wherever it exists and even if it involves young children or unsafe practices, ever new consumers and an endless supply of raw materials from developing regions with lax (if any) conservation regulations. They, also, abandon countries in which coveted materials, when not already commandeered, are protected by stiff environmental laws. Concurrently, jobs continue to drain from nations if their standard minimum wages are not the absolute lowest to be found or there are no new stores of resources to tap.

In relation, Jan Lundberg indicates, in The People Of The Brook Versus Supermarket Splendor, “Social relations are defined today by tolerance of tyranny: of harmful industrial profit schemes, unfair ownership of huge property holdings, and astronomical financial wealth. As soon as the post-peak oil house of cards topples, ‘new’ social structures will be (re)established. There’s a growing number of people already welcoming the end of false wealth’s tyranny and of civilized arrogance.”

Clearly, our choices in terms of the future that we want to create will in time be largely determined by  limitations in oil and other resources. It stands to follow that we can either have a last man standing orientation in which only the most affluent and powerful people have lavish supplies of expensive energy and material goods or we can foster deglobalization, which leads into equitable sharing of resources, job creation, strengthening of community ties, assurance that local resource bases are not exceeded and creation of a social foundation that does not increasingly divide the world between the rich and the poor members of society.

The second option, also, protects against the sort of widespread financial collapse that occurs in the buoy model. In such an arrangement, a descending buoy, when additional buoys are hooked by a line to a sinking one, drags the others to some degree downward based on proximity wherein the ones having the closest connections are pulled down the most. Alternately put, guess about what happens next when one’s own economy, assets, social well being and so forth are precariously linked to declining partners. Is it a structurally safe arrangement?

All considered, it is easy to notice that some individuals and countries faring relatively well throughout the ongoing recession are ones whose economic foundations have been largely isolated from worldwide influences. Moreover, the nations mostly immune to the downturn tend to be oriented towards serving the needs of their own populations, have been largely regionalized in focus, and generally have smaller, comparatively simple, manageable economies, as the U.S. and other countries, in my opinion, should aim to duplicate as much as possible.

In the end, “Our country’s leaders have three main choices: Taking over someone else’s oil fields until they are depleted; carrying on until the lights go out and Americans are freezing in the dark; or changing our life style by energy conservation while heavily investing in alternative energy sources at higher costs,” according to Charles T. Maxwell. I would add to his perspective that our leaders and the rest of us must, in fairly short order, start creating self-reliant, ecologically healthy communities, ones that are durable and flexible so as to reasonably withstand difficult outside forces, such as lack of sufficient oil or, in the least, the crippling post-peak oil prices, that will come to pass. Only if we successfully do so can we avoid the most dire consequences from the severe deficits to come.

With the current peak-oil interval, we have a grace period when oil is still fairly inexpensive and abundant. At the same time, we cannot expect our government leaders to help society transition off of heavy oil dependence on account of their being controlled by “big business” interests. Therefore, it is up to average citizens to create the reforms that lead into localized economic and social development. If the enterprise is not actively taken in a timely fashion, the resultant chaos, as pointed out by Dmitry Orlov in The Five Stages Of Collapse, will be unavoidable.

Emily Spence

Emily Spence is an author living in Massachusetts. She has spent many years involved in human rights, environmental and social services efforts.

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Comments

  1. Emily says

    These four evaluations could be of interest:

    U.S. Offshore Oil Reserves | FactCheck.org U.S. Offshore Oil Reserves. March 16, 2009. Bookmark and Share … The amount of oil it contains, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, is less than one …www.factcheck.org/2009/03/us-offshore-oil-reserves/ – Similar

    Can Offshore Drilling Really Make the U.S. Oil Independent … Sep 12, 2008 … The EIA estimates that by 2030, U.S. oil daily demand will climb to nearly 23 … that the MMS has miscalculated the amount of offshore oil, …www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=can-offshor… – Similar

    US Military Warns Oil Output May Dip
    Causing Massive Shortages By 2015
    By Terry Macalister

    http://www.countercurrents.org/macalister120410.htm

    Surplus oil production capacity could disappear by 2012, says a report from US Joint Forces Command. Shortfall could reach 10m barrels a day. Cost of crude oil is predicted to top $100 a barrel

    How Much Oil Is Left
    By Lars Schall

    http://www.countercurrents.org/schall120410.htm

    Interview with Richard Heinberg

    This is a comment on the Le Monde column that was sent to me from a friend:

    The key graph seems to be on page 8 of the report, showing conventional oil production dropping from 80 million bpd in 2011 to 30 mbpd by 2030, with the total of everything else (tar sands, US coastal drilling, biofuels, etc.) having a minor effect in postponing the slide by about 5 years from 2011. Except for details, this is essentially the same graph as Hubbert drew in 1970 and Cambell repeated in the nineties – peak shortly after 2000 with most of remaining supply exhausted by 2030. Campbell used two incredibly simple assumptions (1) the production peak is a bell-shaped curve with the peak at the point of half-exhaustion of supplies, and (2) production lags discovery by 30n years so the production curve will drop off in the same manner as the discovery curve has dropped off (steadily declining since 1970). For the course of the Bush administration, the US was alone in denying this curve, essentially by declaring that we had 2 trillion barrels to go rather than the generally-conceived 1 trillion – a change in official USGS projections made around 2002 with as far as I know, no technical basis.

    Se generally http://www.peakoil.net/ (ASPO International)

    Kyoto and the UN reports on what is needed for global warming prevention have in common that they call for reduction of GHG emission as on curve that fits actual reduction of oil, of oil specifically, not coal or natural gas). This conforms to the observation that in high-stakes issues, the law follows the market, the reason for which is that a working majority of politicians all have their price, which, when it is insignificant relative to the dollar-value of the market involved, means that the law has to comply with the market.

    What is odd about this to me is that the equality of the global-warming-control curve is with the oil-production curve rather than the oil-plus-coal production curve. This means either the oil industry and not the coal industry is in political control, or for technical reasons coal can make no real dent in the demand (see e.g. the graphs in the DOE report below, showing the transportation sector to dwarf all other sectors in oil demand. We are necessarily going into a period in which the major loss will be in the US transportation sector, which is presumably both caused by and a cause of the oil industry and Wall Street “jumping ship” with the US.
    - Hide quoted text -

    Je suis désolé, ceci est auto-traduit de l’anglais à français.

    Le graphique clé semble être à la page 8 du rapport, montrant de la production de pétrole conventionnelle qui tombe de 80 millions de bpd dans 2011 à 30 mbpd par 2030, avec le total de tout d’autre (les sables de goudron, Etats-Unis entraîner côtier, les biocarburants, etc.) ayant un effet mineur dans posponing la chute par à peu près 5 ans de 2011. Sauf les détails, ceci est essentiellement le même graphique que Hubbert a dessiné dans 1970 et Cambell a répété dans le quatre-vingt-dix – culmine peu après 2000 avec la plupart de provision restante épuisée par 2030. Campbell a utilisé deux suppositions incroyablement simples (1) le sommet de production est une courbe en forme de cloche avec le sommet au point de demi-épuisement d’upplies, et (2) la production est à la découverte de traîne par 30n ans si la courbe de production laissera dans la même manière que la courbe de découverte a laissé (déclinant solidement depuis 1970). Pour le cours du Bush administation, les Etats-Unis étaient seul dans nier cette courbe, essentiellement en déclarant que nous avons eu 2 barils de trillon pour aller au lieu du généralement-conçu 1 trillion – un changement dans les projections d’USGS officielles a fait autour de 2002 avec pour autant que je sache, aucune base technique.

    Se généralement http://www.peakoil.net/ (ASPO International)

    Kyoto et les rapports d’ONU sur ce que sont nécessaires pour l’empêchement de réchauffement de l’atmosphère a en commun qu’ils appellent la réduction de GHG emiasaionas sur la courbe qui ajuste la véritable réduction de specificlly de pétrole de pétrole, pas le charbon ou le gaz naturel. Ceci est conforme à l’observation que dans les problèmes à gros prix, la loi suit le marché, la raison pour laquelle est qu’une majorité de fonctionnement de poiticians tous ont leur prix, qui, quand c’est insignifiant relatif à la dollar-valeur du marché impliqué, les moyens que la loi a à complyh avec le marché.

    Quel est curieux de ceci à me suis que l’égalité du global-courbe de contrôle chaud est avec la courbe de pétrole-production plutôt thn le pétrole-avantage-la courbe de production de charbon. Ceci signifie ou l’industrie de pétrole et pas l’industrie de charbon est dans le contrôle politique, ou pour le charbon d’esons technique peut faire non vrai cabosser dans la demande (voit par exemple les graphiques dans le rapport de DOE, montrant au dessous au secteur de transport pour écraser tous les autres secteurs dans la demande de pétrole. Nous entrons nécessairement dans une période dans laquelle la perte majeure sera dans le secteur de transport d’Etats-Unis, qui est presumbly a causé les deux par et une cause de l’industrie de pétrole et Wall Street « sautant le bateau » avec les Etats-Unis.

  2. Elaine says

    We need to drill for our own oil & stop buying from the Saudi’s & others. If it is washing up on the beaches in California from leakage out in the ocean then wouldn’t it be better to drill for it?

    • Harvey Platt says

      Any discussion of peak oil which misses the obvious, that major energy wars are already underway and rapidly escalating throughout the greater Middle East, is hard to take seriously. The US intends to remain in Iraq for decades to come and has the same intentions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and probably Iran.

      The cost in blood and treasure for energy wars is tremendous, and the impacts of this war policy will peak before oil itself does. Therefore, doesn’t a political movement to end the energy wars have to proceed any well intentioned, even if naive, plan to develop sustainable energy.

      This argument is hardly unique. Michael Klare, the military editor of The Nation has made it many times, most notably in Blood and Oil. His many books and essays deserve a very careful read for anyone who thinks that peak oil can be understood and addressed outside the contest of war and imperialism in the Middle East.

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